Some 600 former LIAT employees are celebrating the news that they can now proceed with court action against the Antigua and Barbuda government on the eve of the second anniversary of their termination as they seek to get millions of dollars in financial entitlements they claim are owed them.
News of the breakthrough came on Thursday afternoon from Barbadian pilot Neil Cave, who, along with four of his colleagues had filed a suit in the Antigua High Court, challenging the constitutionality of Section 564(1)(a) of the Companies Amendment Act 2020.
That section of the act imposed an automatic stay of proceedings on all matters against LIAT 1974 Limited, which is currently under administration.
This resulted in a 2015 High Court claim by the pilots, which was set for trial in 2020, being adjourned indefinitely since LIAT had argued that because of section 564(1)(a), there was now an automatic stay of proceedings.
But this afternoon, High Court Judge Justice Marissa Robertson upheld the two key contentions of the pilots.
He ruled that the section of the Companies Act complained of was unconstitutional in that it is “over-broad” and not rationally connected with the objective of the amendment, which is to allow debtors (including LIAT) to pursue rehabilitation by affording it protection from enforcement by its creditors, and therefore cannot be justifiable.
The judge also ruled that the section also infringed the principle of separation of powers as the automatic stay of proceedings removed new and current matters from the oversight of the court.
Commenting on the outcome, Cave told Barbados TODAY: “It’s been a good day. A reward after two terrible years.”
Cave explained that the court challenge originated with a claim against the Antigua and Barbuda government regarding “unauthorised” lodging of their pensions with the collapsed CLICO International Life Insurance Company Limited.
“Initially we would have challenged the interpretation because when we went to court…and this would have been on another matter, a pension matter where we were contending that monies were illegally lodged in CLICO – when we went to court on the trial date, this Companies Amendment Act which had been passed a couple of months before, they said all matters are stayed. We could not even proceed in terms of the trial,” he stated.
“We thought that was very unfair. We challenged initially the interpretation with the good help of Ruggles Fergusson [pilots’ attorney]. We had a ruling go against us. The court said it had no power to decide on the interpretation…that they had to take the interpretation literally as Parliament had written it.”
The former senior LIAT pilot further explained that when that decision was taken to the Court of Appeal, it upheld the ruling of the court below.
“They said they could not listen to the constitutional side of it…we would have to go the constitutional route and then if it makes it back to the Court of Appeal then they would basically look at it. So we filed a constitutional motion to say that the Companies Amendment Act was unconstitutional in our view because it was simply too broad and it stopped us from having access to the court and a fair hearing to allow our matters to be determined,” Cave told Barbados TODAY.
He said that today’s judgment is a major win, not only for the pilots, but by extension, all terminated LIAT employees.
“It’s a huge victory for a handful of pilots. It gives all the LIAT employees at least the right to a fair hearing now and for us it’s a tremendous victory and it brings back a tremendous amount of confidence in the system,” he said.
Cave said having gone through years of bad news, today’s judgment has given him and his four colleagues a chance to have their day in court.
However, the ex-LIAT pilot lamented that during the entire “ordeal” of trying to fight the Antigua and Barbuda government through the courts, they did not get any backing from their union, the Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Association (LIALPA).
“It was only a handful of us. The LIALPA did not support us going forward. We weren’t given any help by the union, but we were successful,” he declared.
Earlier today before receiving news of the ruling, a group of the ex-LIAT Barbadian pilots updated Barbados TODAY on their latest situation, the day before the second anniversary of their dismissal from the St John’s-headquartered airline owned by shareholder governments Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Dominica.
One of the pilots, who did not want to be named, disclosed that they were informed that the $2,000 per month advance from the Barbados Government which the local former employees were receiving, has been discontinued from this month, two months short of the promised 12-month period.
“The last payment was already made this month. So we are in no-man’s land. People were expecting 12 months and then some further assistance to get the matter settled. But the employees were notified about two weeks ago now, that the tenth payment would be the last payment. So we are just awaiting further [word]. We are very much in the wilderness here,” he stated.
The four former LIAT pilots, including a female, who at times became highly emotional and close to tears spoke of having to beg and borrow money even from pensioners in order to make it through each day.
They spoke of being on the brink of homelessness as they counted down the days when the lending institutions could no longer “hold strain” while the arrears on their mortgages and other loans accumulated because of the non payment to the former workers of severance or any other entitlements.
The dismissed workers have been fighting since the airline’s collapse to get more than EC$120 million owed in severance and other benefits. The government has made several offers to cover at least 50 per cent of the severance and union officials have rejected each offer.
When contacted, president of LIALPA Patterson Thompson declined to comment and Minister of Tourism and International Transport Senator Lisa Cummins was unavailable up to late this evening.
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